Race, Place, and Feminist Space

A brief foreword: this is a personal reflective essay about my recent trip to Liverpool for Writing on the Wall, the experience of being in this city, and the thoughts it shaped in me.

Content warning: this essay explores themes of violence against women & girls, including rape and FGM.


 

Getting There

This year I’ve said no to a lot of things. Girls aren’t typically taught to say no, and women are discouraged from setting boundaries, so getting into the habit of saying no not only felt like some much needed character development but a way of unpicking the threads of gendered socialisation that tie women to the role of pleasing others at the expense of our own needs. This year I decided to prioritise two things: my writing and my mental health, which mostly complement one another but can be in conflict as deadlines draw in. And I’ve said no to everything likely to compromise either or both of those things, including a few panels. I think a couple of people have felt slighted by my no, cushioned as it was in politeness, but ultimately that’s their issue. Leaving my home to speak before people can cost quite a lot of energy, especially if it involves long hours of travel and an overnight stay away from home. The mental and physical resources aren’t always mine to spare.

Still, there are times when saying yes is impossible to resist – when the cost -benefit IMG_-ki1vps.jpganalysis balances out. Last week I was part of Glasgow International for After Dark, a creative conversation between LGBT artists of colour. I’d never been called an artist before, and still don’t see myself as one. Writer, yes – I feel that in my bones, and have external validation from the publishing industry. But, artist? Funnily enough, another participant questioned his own right to the label of writer because of the way Black people go largely unrecognised as ‘legitimate’ cultural critics. Or not so funny. A recurring theme, whatever the medium we worked with, was that none of us had been encouraged to think of ourselves, our work, our voices as having authority. But it was satisfying to connect, to talk about our work and the lives that inform it. Opportunities to meet other creatives who are both LGBT and people of colour are a rare, exquisite thing.

As a girl I’d never have imagined a future where I’d enter the Gallery of Modern Art under the label of artist. The GoMA is a beloved part of Glasgow’s cultural landscape. But,IMG_20180515_101715.jpg like so many of the city’s architectural wonders, the building was funded by the labour of enslaved Black people. Growing up amidst the tensions created by that repressed history, it was impossible for me to develop a sense of belonging. When Blackness and Scottishness are often treated as two mutually exclusive identities (a seemingly endless number of white Scots can’t get their head around Black people being born ‘here’, raised ‘here’, from ‘here’), how could it be otherwise? It felt powerful to sit and talk and eat and drink in the Gallery, to claim a space that was never meant for us.

Another event I couldn’t resist saying yes to is Beyond #MeToo, a panel at Writing on the Wall – Liverpool’s longest running literary festival. I like the North of England: it has a higher Black population density than Scotland, and is cheaper and less affected than the South. And, like a great many feminists, I’m passionate about talk of women’s rights, bodies, and boundaries. The other panellists – Winnie Li, Hibo Wardere, and Vanessa Olorenshaw – are all women I’ve been keen to meet. Going felt instinctively right. So I did.

Usually my journeys to unfamiliar places involve a constant companion that goes by the name of anxiety, but getting to Liverpool is actually alright. I crochet a few rounds of a blanket and listen to St. Vincent (since taking up white gay Twitter’s recommendation, I’ve been hooked). Even through delay and disruption, it is possible to hold onto a sense of calm – which is uncharacteristic, but feels like a good omen. I’m getting there; getting there in the literal sense, physically approaching Liverpool on the third and final train of the journey; getting there in my head, too. When I’ve been struggling with mental health problems and am starting to reach a place of wellbeing, “getting there” is the answer I give when anybody asks how I am. It’s not a bullshit answer the way “fine” is, but the fine layer of euphemism coating the honesty makes it feel safe.

Beyond #MeToo

I get to Liverpool later than planned, but still with enough time to drop off my bag and draw on my brows before the event. In the hotel lobby I meet Vanessa, and we immediately click. Her vision of maternal feminism and no-nonsense approach to sexual politics grab my attention, and I make a mental note to track down a copy of her book. There’s something deeply enriching about engaging with feminist perspectives coming from a standpoint that’s different to your own, learning about women’s experiences and politics that don’t necessarily mirror what you have lived or known. Then Winnie joins us, and she’s even more of a badass than Twitter has led me to believe – I say badass, because speaking openly in public about your experiences of sexual violence the way she does takes serious guts. She has a self-possessed quality, a way of occupying public space, that I can’t help admiring. Much like saying no, a woman carrying herself in this way is not an intended outcome of female socialisation. We talk, during the taxi journey to the Women’s Organisation, about everything from our writing habits to the FiLiA conference. Their company is galvanising in a way that’s unique to space shared between women.

Hibo, the last remaining panellist, is waiting for us at the Women’s Organisation – or maybe that should be first, because she was at the venue before us. But Hibo is the last of the women I meet in person. She is every bit as resolute in her opposition to violence against women and girls, every bit as resplendent, as she appears on Twitter. When we compliment her, Hibo laughs and says “I am a rainbow walking. Always in colours.” During the panel Hibo reveals that for years after undergoing female genital mutilation she hid herself away, and wearing bold colours was a way of celebrating being in her body. To my thinking, it is an act of resistance for any woman whose body has been made into a site of trauma to reclaim herself; to find ways of being fully present and perhaps even taking delight in her physical self.

IMG_20180510_001036.jpgWe get to know each other over pizza (which should be mandatory in every green room), sharing bits of our lives without glossing over trauma. So much is possible when women come together and talk openly about violence. When you have the support of feminist women, and are free from the worry of whether your disclosure will be shamed or disbelieved, it is much easier to get to the root of how and why violence against women happens. There is also a lot of joy in those connections.

The panel goes well. Maggie O’Carroll, Chief Executive Officer of the Women’s Organisation, has a gift for chairing – an unaffected warmth that stops the event from feeling too formal. It’s also worth pointing out that one advantage of doing panels without men is you are much less likely to be spoken over. Women, especially those who are part of the feminist movement, tend to be good at holding space for one another to speak. And speak we do, about our writing and activism and everything in between.

Dark-Chapter-by-Winnie-M-Li-_-Legend-PressWinnie reveals that she loved writing as a child, but never anticipated that her first book – Dark Chapter – would be based on the story of her own rape. The perpetrator left her with 39 separate injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. Winnie quit her job, went about the business of putting herself back together, and rebuilt her life. Her writing perfectly captures the reality of experiencing sexual violence. In an interview with the Guardian she said that “it’s like you’ve been gutted like a fish – it was like somebody had gouged the Winnie out of me,” words which have stayed with me ever since. Winnie talks about the layer of silence that surrounds sexual violence, even between female friends, and her determination to break it. Winnie’s point about that silence resonates. Before I started spending time in feminist spaces, building friendships with feminist women, it would have been unthinkable to talk about my experiences of male violence.

Rather poignantly, Winnie says she was “‘lucky’ to be a victim of stranger rape”, believed by those around her and the criminal justice system because she met society’s standards of a perfect victim. It’s a terrible indictment of this world that any woman would feel fortunate to experience one type of violence over another. But the reality is the majority of women who are raped fall into the category of imperfect victims. At least 70% of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim. Most of us knew and perhaps even liked or trusted our rapists beforehand, meaning that – despite this being a common pattern of sexual violence – it is easier not to believe us, the imperfect victims. Believing that only strangers are rapists means you don’t have to confront the full extent of the problem, the reality that male violence against women and girls is endemic. It means you don’t have to sit with the difficult knowledge that rapists are not shady monsters, but average men: men we know socially or professionally, men who are husbands or boyfriends or fathers. This is the ugly truth of life under patriarchy: women & girls are at risk of sexual violence – overwhelmingly committed by men – and the few of us who get believed are comparatively lucky.

Hibo recounted her experience of FGM and how it has influenced the trajectory of her life. She said “I can remember every little detail of that day, the smell of my blood in the cut-one-womans-fight-against-fgm-in-britain-today-9781471153983_lgroom.” A procedure that took 45 minutes would have repercussions for the rest of her life. Hibo underwent type three FGM, which she wrote about in her memoir Cut. Of this experience, Hibo says “you don’t heal from it, you learn to cope with it.” During her work in schools, Hibo was compelled to start challenging FGM when she realised young girls were at risk. Explaining her advocacy, Hibo says “I used my trauma as a tool for education.” Her work has changed how the education system, the British government, and even the FBI approach the issue of FGM. Hibo is proud of how attitudes have begun to shift against FGM in recent years, a change to which her work has greatly contributed, but is adamant there’s still a long way to go before this particular battle is won. Every 11 seconds a girl is cut. FGM has been illegal in Britain since 1985, but nobody has yet been prosecuted for carrying the procedure out on a girl.

IMG_-c2bx6e.jpgNext it’s my turn to speak. I have boundless respect for the other women on this panel and feel honoured to sit alongside them. Yet there are no pangs of imposter syndrome, which is another recent positive step. I tell the audience about the context that shaped my work, the isolation of growing up Black in Scotland, the ways in which gas-lighting is used to cover up racism – which the country has long since struggled to acknowledge as a social, political reality. It’s easy enough: there’s no scarcity of women of colour in the room. I talk about the importance of having found feminist community in digital spaces; that it felt natural to raise a dissenting voice online in a way that it didn’t in person, offline. I share my motivation in creating a learning resource for women trying to engage with feminist politics, how it’s done with the goal of helping build a truly anti-racist feminist movement that really is committed to the liberation of all women. And then I turn to Vanessa.

In her own words, Vanessa advocates for “women’s rights, as mothers, in the public Liberating Motherhoodsphere.” Before having children she was a barrister, which shows in how she forms an argument. As a new mother, no longer practicing her profession, she was conscious that “my political power was gone, my economic power was gone, my body had changed.” She struggled against the idea mothers are not political, a misconception “which Mumsnet prove wrong.”  To Vanessa there is no doubt that women’s bodies exist as the site of oppression in patriarchal society. She calls for an embodied feminist politics that recognise the significance of sex in determining how we experience the world. Vanessa points out that boys begin assaulting girls from a young age, highlighting the patterns of violence that emerge through gendered socialisation.

In particular, Vanessa calls for greater recognition of care work and models beyond outsourcing domestic tasks – often to women who are working class and/or of colour. Despite being vital to the continuation of humanity, care work is devalued as feminised labour and made invisible through essentialist claims that nurturing is a natural part of being female. When her first child was born, Vanessa was asked relentlessly when she planned to go “back to work” – nobody who asked recognised that she was constantly working to look after a new baby, as she wasn’t getting paid to do it. Ideas of what counts as ‘real’ work are upheld by the pillars of patriarchy and capitalism. Vanessa cites Adrienne Rich as an inspiration for her work, crediting Of Woman Born as an essential read on motherhood and feminism.

The Q&A is as interesting as it is challenging. Mandy Vere, a bookseller at News From Nowhere, asked our thoughts on the relationship between shifts in language and feminist politics. Winnie felt this most keenly in the difference between ‘victim’ and ‘survivor’ in discussions of sexual violence. She thinks the shift towards ‘survivor’ is a “push to use the word less full of horror and trauma”, that ‘survivor’ offers a more positive and media-friendly spin. Most importantly, Winnie points out that surviving sexual violence is not a linear experience. Ten years on, she sees herself as a survivor, but is conscious that she could struggle again and identify more with the term ‘victim.’ “Trauma can return.” Hibo talks about vagina – specifically, the stigma attached to the word and the sexism in making it unspeakable. She is quite right in observing that without vagina none of us would have been born, so a bit more appreciation is due.

I pick up on the shift from ‘lesbian’ to ‘queer’ in recent years. While it’s a positive thing that more people are finding language that fits them, lesbian gets dismissed as “old fashioned” in a way that’s deeply harmful and ultimately lesbophobic. For hundreds of years, lesbian lives and loves have been erased or broken apart, often with violence. Lesbian is a less palatable word than queer because it is a sexual boundary that explicitly excludes men from women’s desire, whereas queer is ambiguous – and so less threatening to the status quo. Patriarchy depends on men having access to women’s sexual, reproductive, and domestic labour. Lesbian says no to all of that. Lesbian is women directing our love and energy towards women. It’s a powerful word, and an important one to use. Vanessa critiques the term “gender based violence” on the grounds that it obscures the power dynamic typically in action. She says “we don’t commit violence with our gender, but with our bodies” – often male bodies against female bodies.

People ask about everything from ethics to the implications of self-identification. But the comment that most stands out comes from a woman, let’s call her Valerie, who shares that she is a survivor of sexual violence. She speaks up because she doesn’t want Winnie alone to carry that burden of being ‘out’, and because she is conscious that many women in the room will be in the same boat. Valerie’s courage is powerful to witness. Her voice shakes, and mine does too as I clutch the microphone and tell her she’s not alone. After the event, Valerie approaches me. She says that being Black was a huge factor in why the police didn’t support her when she went to tell them about being raped. I tell her that knowing how I’d be seen as a young Black woman was a huge factor in why I never alerted the authorities. Ultimately neither of us could heal the other, but throughout our conversation we could hear and understand one another – which made a world of difference.

I do not feel obliged to disclose my experiences of sexual violence. I do not owe those details to anybody – not as a woman or a feminist or a writer. And it’s entirely possible that I won’t ever write or speak publicly about this subject in any greater detail. But it’s there: me too.

Afterwards

Afterwards, we each grab a slice of leftover pizza and head off for dinner and drinks. On our way out of the Women’s Organisation, Winnie and I notice a poster for the panel on the bathroom door: fame at last. Being something of an introvert I had initially planned to spend my evening in the bath, reading a book, looking out at the lights across Liverpool from the vantage of my hotel room. But I’m enjoying spending time with these women and want to share their company for a bit longer. We sit down in a bar and begin the lengthy process of setting the world to rights. It is in here that I make an important discovery: Liverpool has a quality gin scene. Mine comes in a glass that looks like an infinitely fancier variation of the fishbowls that were popular to drink from when I was an undergrad, complete with pomegranate seeds and blueberries. I could grow to like Liverpool very much.

I’ve known Mandy (the radical bookseller) online for what feels like forever, but this is the first time we’ve been together in person. We get to know one another better. She tells me about what it’s like to be part of a radical collective of booksellers (spoiler alert: pretty damn cool), what drew her to Liverpool, and her family. At a few points through the evening, the nature of my accent is queried. It’s exhausting to have a Scottishness that is never assumed and always in need of explanation. Even without malice, as in this context, it must be qualified in a way that invariably leaves me feeling like an outsider looking in on Scottishness. Still, there is belonging to be found in this group of women – transitory though our meeting is. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in patriarchy female friendships are always framed as being of secondary importance to relationships with men, when talking and connecting with women is what enables us to spot the traps gender has laid for us, and for every other woman too. What is gender but a series of restrictions imposed upon a girl, until she learns to restrict herself?

In the morning I have a delicious vegetarian breakfast that fuels my upcoming adventures. It even includes vegetarian black pudding. Never having tasted black pudding before, vegetarian or otherwise, it was a masterclass in creative use of beans and pulses. At the table beside mine, conversation mainly seems to consist of a man talking at his wife, pontificating about everything from Kim Jong-un to the merits of scrambled eggs. I feel sorry for her, until she finally does offer an opinion: that it’s refreshing to see a hotel staffed only by the indigenous population. Indigenous, native, Briton, from here ‘originally’ – there are so many coded ways of saying white, but the racism behind them never varies. A world away from last night, when having a panel that was majority women of colour was a cause for celebration.

I shoulder my backpack and set off to News From Nowhere. Having followed the bookshop on Twitter for years, I am desperate to see it in person. Getting there is easy. For once, I don’t struggle with the map. Above the door is a gay pride flag, and in the window display – alongside the books – is a cardboard cut-out of Theresa May in a police uniform. Yes, I have found News From Nowhere. The shop smells like homemade candles and books – heaven, in short. There’s fiction, feminist theory, biography, zines… There are books on disability rights, sexual politics, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh history, a whole shelf devoted to Liverpool’s own Black community. When I arrive, they’re in the process of changing the display table from books about anti-racist activism to mental health. This is my kind of place. I browse, dreamy and happy, and chat with the booksellers.

Winnie meets me in the bookshop. We talk, lingering by the Women’s Prize for Fiction display, and I recommend Meena Kandasamy’s book When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife. Like Winnie, her writing gives voice to deep truths about violence against women, addressing the link between gender and power. It’s a devastating read, but this book burns with resistance and is exquisitely crafted. It would have been great to talk to Winnie more, but we’ll both be at Bare Lit fest at the end of the month. The booksellers very kindly offer to watch out bags, and we each head out to explore the city.

20180518_151742.jpgI walk to the International Slavery Museum, taking in Liverpool as I go. The architecture is striking against the blue sky, and cherry blossoms line a walkway towards the dock. It’s a beautiful city in spring. There are a number of art spaces and cafés I could happily delve into but this mission, I feel, is important. So many of Scotland’s ongoing problems with racism are rooted in an unwillingness to examine the country’s history with race, a refusal to acknowledge how that past shaped the present reality. Earlier this year I visited Berlin, and there are public monuments to the victims of World War 2 placed throughout the city. Each monument included explanations of how and why these people died, giving history to provide context. It was deeply emotional, but there was something healing in giving public space over to recognising those atrocities. Repressing a history only adds to the trauma – which is why I am determined to visit the Slavery Museum.

The Slavery Museum is “the first museum in the world to deal with transatlantic slavery 20180510_124136.jpgand its legacies”, exploring not only the past but how it has informed life in modern day Britain. Beside the entrance is an invitation for people to write about the thoughts and feelings evoked, and stick their postcard on a wall. I like that people are given the space and encouragement needed to try and grapple with the painful knowledge held here. The realities of the slave trade were horrifying. Black people were beaten and raped and killed and worked to death for the profit of white people. Denying it doesn’t help the African people who were forcibly removed from their homes, and it doesn’t help anybody now either.

On display are chains once used to shackle people, brands that once glowed white and burnt into human flesh. A model plantation shows the horrifying living conditions of the enslaved people, and explains that a group of escapees committed mass suicide rather than going back when capture was imminent. The sound of waves plays on loop, clashing with the testimonies of enslaved people being read. I feel overwhelmed. It is explained in detail that enslaved people were dehumanised to legitimise the violence inflicted upon them by their white owners, to justify that ownership in the first place. And this tactic of dehumanisation continues to influence the ways Black people are racialised today.

There are interactive maps of popular routes for transporting enslaved people, explanations of where they were taken and why (always to the place that would bring white people the biggest profit), and ledgers recording the sale of human beings. Generations of enslaved people lived and died without ever tasting freedom or human dignity. The display I found hardest showed samples of cloth that were traded for African people. With a scrap of material, it was once possible to purchase a human being and have them work beyond the limits of endurance for the rest of his or her life. This horror cuts deep.

On my way out of the museum, I am caught by a stream of schoolchildren on a trip. All of the kids I spot are white. Some of them mess around, the way children do, but I hope that what they see here today plants a seed of awareness that will grow over time. I take a minute to breathe, and then head back to the bookshop. On my way I see a monument to Melusine, the river goddess, and spend a moment by her side to find a sense of peace. It works. I say goodbye to the booksellers, News From Nowhere, and finally the city itself.

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I liked Liverpool very much, and also the person I felt myself to be here – capable and calm. A return visit is definitely on the cards, next time with a bigger bag for more books and zines. Travel makes life seem full of possibilities, or rather it highlights the possibilities we are liable to forget in the course of everyday life. When Mandy asked about my life in Scotland, I had told her the truth – there are things I deeply love about my home country, but it isn’t a place I can live indefinitely. I’m tired of living in a country where my body, my hair texture, my voice, my presence in public life, must all be justified. It would be nice to walk around with some kind of disclaimer that says “Yes, I’m Black. And my accent – like the rest of me – is Scottish. Those two things can co-exist.” But, in the words of Sonya Renee Taylor, the body is not an apology. And folding my body into the confines of an apology over and over again is not a price that I’m prepared to keep on paying.


Bibliography

Meena Kandasamy. (2017). When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife

Winnie M. Li. (2017). Dark Chapter

Heather McDaid & Laura Jones (eds.). (2017). Nasty Women

Vanessa Olorenshaw. (2016). Liberating Motherhood: Birthing the Purplestockings Movement

Hibo Wardere. (2016). Cut: One Woman’s Fight Against FGM in Britain Today

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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‘Punch a TERF’ Rhetoric Encourages Violence Against Women

A brief foreword. This is the sixth of my essays on sex, gender, and sexuality. (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 available here.) I suspect it’s also the least polished, as I was shaken by the assault of Maria MacLachlan and wrote this to work through my thoughts, but it was written from a place of truth.


My grandmother is a brilliant woman. She is clever, compassionate, and unfailingly kind. She is selfless, generous with her time, and loyal to those she loves. I have lived with my grandmother since birth – during childhood she read me Swallows and Amazons at night, sat by the pool during my swimming lessons, and took me to the cinema to see Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – the film which opened my eyes to the magic of cinema as a child. Nana also sat through Shrek and, with thinly-veiled disgust, Shrek 2. If that’s not love, what is? My grandmother and I have always been close. Since my grandfather died last year, and it has been just the two of us in the house, we have grown closer still – we live like what I’d describe as an infinitely more interesting version of the Gilmour Girls.

I’ve also noticed that my grandmother has grown a bit more radical in that time. She has stopped trying to convince me that men have their uses, which she often did after I came out to her as lesbian. She now has faith in my ability to do what were once considered “man jobs”, like building furniture or running heavy things to the dump. She will readily call racism by its name is and receptive to having racism pointed out. She has identified an abusive relationship and asked me for the relevant details about shelters to pass on and how best to support the woman in question as she left the relationship – I’m very proud of her for that.

My grandmother is also pro-life. She does not believe that abortion is legitimate or morally acceptable. She’s a committed Catholic and gets letters from SPUC every so often. I once joked to her that with my advocacy of abortion and her opposition to it, the output from our household basically cancelled itself out. It’s quite strange to think that Nana is roughly the same age as Angela Davis. I used to reason that, being of a different generation, it was to be expected that she held those views. But then, especially as I grew familiar with feminists who were active during the Women’s Liberation Movement and read more feminist books from the ‘60s and ‘70s, it seemed ridiculous to reduce her politics to a matter of age. Either way, I don’t agree with Nana about abortion. She certainly doesn’t agree with me. But we love each other very much and that disagreement – the most fundamental disagreement in our relationship – doesn’t alter the fact we’re ride or die.

what_is_gender_flyerOn our way out this afternoon, she gently pointed out that I seemed a bit down. My depression has been severe this year, and I know Nana worries. At first I didn’t say much. But months of therapy have made it substantially easier to divine the root cause of a problem. I told her that a 60 year old woman was beaten yesterday in London – that Maria MacLachlan was punched and choked for going to a talk about the Gender Recognition Act. I explained that the original venue, New Cross Learning, had backed out after being harassed into cancelling – the intensity of protest had the library worried about safety of staff, volunteers, and those accessing the community space. I briefly outlined the schism between a queer and a radical feminist understanding of gender. Mostly, I told Nana that I felt heartsick that a woman had been beaten.

Nana didn’t ask if I knew the woman in question, and I loved her for that – for getting that a woman being assaulted, any woman being hurt, was painful to hear of. What she did ask is if the police caught those behind the attack, if feminist women were challenging it. The mechanics of digital media are as much a mystery to Nana as her daily Sudoku puzzles are to me, but she sees me glued to my phone all day long and understands enough to know that if women gather our energies to make a fuss over injustice then something will come of it. And I told her the truth, a truth that left me even more heartsick: not exactly. There are women who have rallied, and there are women who have looked the other way.


And my Nana said what dozens and dozens of seasoned feminists lack the courage to say: that the attackers were brutes. She asked what sort of horrible, small-minded person would deliberately hurt a woman in her sixties.

For a split-second I wondered what the response to describing those behind the attack as ‘horrible’ or ‘brutes’ would be on Twitter. TERF, obviously – that’s trans-exclusionary radical feminist, for the uninitiated. Maybe Nazi. (More and more, I’ve noticed radical feminists who are lesbian described as Nazi – without the slightest recognition that lesbian women were persecuted, rounded up as “asocials” for their refusal to produce blonde-haired blue-eyed babies, and killed by the Nazi regime.) And then I knew, as is so often the case, that my grandmother was right. They are horrible. They are brutes.

The footage is difficult to watch. A group of women gathered at the Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, where they had arranged to meet before moving on to the venue – which had

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“NO TERFS ON OUR TURF!” Shared by Sisters Uncut

been kept secret owing to the risk involved. The protest – organised by Action for Trans Health London, Sisters Uncut, and Goldsmiths LGBTQ+ Society – is in full swing. There’s a lot of shouting. The atmosphere is febrile. Amidst the clusters of people, Maria MacLachlan holds a camera to document the proceedings. She is set upon by someone substantially bigger than her. Two more attackers join in after MacLachlan pulls down her assailant’s hood so that they may be identified, as though the beating of a sixty year old woman is too great an undertaking for one man alone. MacLachlan gave her account of her assault to Feminist Current:

[She] had been trying to film the protest when some of the trans activists began to shout, “When TERFs attack, we fight back.” She asked them, “Who’s attacking?” At this point, MacLachlan says a young man in a hoodie tried to grab her camera. “I think he knocked it out of my hand but it was looped to my wrist. He turned back and tried to grab it again. I hung onto it.” As the two struggled, MacLachlan pulled back the hood of the man holding her camera, so onlookers could photograph his face, and another man ran over and began punching MacLachlan. Wood and a third man pushed her to the ground, where she says she was kicked and punched.

The whole incident is disturbing. There is a long history of violence being used to discourage women from collectively organising, and the assault of Maria MacLachlan FB_IMG_1505469664006opens the latest chapter of a story called patriarchy. Both the violence and the context that enabled it to happen must be scrutinised.

How have we reached a point where beating a 60 year old woman can be credited to the politics of liberation? How have we reached a point where feminists can ignore that a 60 year old woman was beaten? How have we reached a point where some self-proclaimed feminists read about this assault and questioned whether a woman was lying about violence, if it really happened, or – if it did happen – she provoked the attack? The silence and disbelief of other women, women who call themselves feminist, is like salt in a wound. Our whole movement is built around the belief that no woman should be subject to violence, and that those women who do experience violence are fully deserving of our support.

The deeper we go into feminist politics and spaces – especially digital feminist spaces – the easier it becomes to forget about certain realities of feminist struggle. The gap between ideas and reality, between the theory being developed and the everyday unfolding of women’s lives, grows until something vital is lost through the cracks of that in-between space. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that queer politics and gender ideology have flourished in the internet age; when so much of our lives are lived online, it is easier to lose focus on the significance of material reality.

While it is certainly shocking that Maria MacLachlan was beaten by trans activists, it was not altogether unpredictable. Last year a transwoman called Dana Rivers murdered an interracial lesbian couple and their son. Not long before committing triple homicide, Rivers protested the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival on the grounds that it was trans-exclusionary. For the last few years, a steady flow of violent rhetoric has been levelled against women, in particular lesbians – much of it from self-identified feminists. Kill all TERFs. Punch all TERFs. Knife a TERF. Burn a TERF. Rivers shot and stabbed the Wright family before setting fire to their house, violence that is mirrored by the language directed towards the women denounced as TERFs. The violence trans activists and allies enacted when Vancouver Women’s Library launched was similarly normalised by misogynistic, abusive language. Given that “punch a TERF” has become something of a rallying cry for those invested in upholding gender ideology, women cannot afford to feign surprise when it actually happens.


Radical feminists have warned against the violent rhetoric attached to the term TERF for years, and been dismissed as bigots for our trouble. Jokes and threats involving violence against women, often indistinguishable, are now commonplace on queer corners of the internet. Etsy stock badges that conflate trans liberation with violence against women. We have reached a bizarre point at which violence against women is circulated as a bold message of resistance by people who claim to be feminists.

Painful disagreements and challenging ideas need not result in abuse. I can’t imagine a single woman campaigning for abortion rights and access to reproductive healthcare beating up my grandmother for her opposing views. Nor could I imagine any of the campaigners who have got in touch with my grandmother beating pro-choice women, even if they do think we’re heading for an afterlife of eternal damnation. The conversations I’ve had with Nana about abortion have been hard for both of us. Realistically, we’re never going to agree. But that doesn’t mean those conversations have to be destructive.

Screenshot_20170914-220321There must be a way to talk about the tensions between gender ideology and sexual politics without abusive language or acts of violence. The subject is fraught, uncomfortable, and certainly not abstract for anyone involved with gender discourse – which is all the more reason to bring empathy to the table. Dehumanising women to the point where we are considered legitimate targets of violence only upholds the values set by patriarchy. We do not approach the subject of gender from a position of power – gender has been used, for hundreds upon hundreds of years, to oppress women. That gender is fundamental to the oppression of women is too often overlooked in gender discourse.

No matter what your politics, we should all recognise that beating up a 60 year old woman doesn’t liberate. It’s violence against women. If your politics justify violence against women, they are shitty and misogynistic politics. It is not complicated. There is no justification. Women are not legitimate targets of violence. Not for having different views to you. Not for listening to or engaging with ideas you disagree with. Never. Plenty of the progressive left looked the other way at “punch a TERF” rhetoric normalising violence against women, and this is what it led to: a woman being beaten.

Violence against women has no place in the politics of liberation. If you ignore this Screenshot_20170915-132601assault to keep your ally cookies on queer identity politics, you’re complicit. If you give language that normalises violence against women, you’re complicit. Violence against women has no place in any context. That is what radical feminists consistently argue. Radical feminist women are depicted as violent simply for our ideas about gender – meanwhile, those who perpetrate physical acts of violence against women are framed as our victims.

When radical feminists critique gender, we are accused of debating trans-identified people’s right to live free from violence or even accused of exterminating trans-identified people. Aside from being falsehoods, these claims serve to discredit radical feminists’ explorations of gender. Writing for Trouble and Strife, Jane Clare Jones unpicks queer misrepresentations of radical feminism:

[Gender] debate is not academic for anyone involved. For both trans and non-trans women, what is at stake is the ability to understand themselves in a way that makes their lives livable. For feminist women, the axiom ‘trans women are women,’ when understood to mean ‘womanhood is gender identity and hence, trans women are women in exactly the same way as non-trans women are women’ is experienced as an extreme erasure of the way our being-as-women is marked by a system of patriarchal violence that aims to control our sexed bodies.
This system of patriarchal violence also marks the lives of trans women, who are indubitably victims of the kinds of male violence feminists have spent years attempting to resist. To cast certain feminists as the principal threat to trans existence, it is therefore necessary for trans-ideology to sideline the patriarchal violence that affects both women and trans people, and instead, position feminists at the apex of a structure of oppression.

Reframing women’s oppression as a form of privilege has enabled the disciples of gender ideology to target women as the oppressor and feel legitimate in doing so. But this perspective fails to consider the reality of the situation: women are an oppressed class, marginalised as a result of having been born female into a patriarchal society. Women do not hold a wealth of structural power over trans-identified people, and claiming that women challenging the means of our oppression are enacting anti-trans violence is ludicrous. Radical feminists are the staunchest and most consistent critics of male violence, which is the cause of transphobic attacks.

If you’re a feminist who has ever used the term TERF to describe a radical feminist, stop and think about the violent misogyny it’s used in conjunction with. Think about how “punch a TERF” led to Maria MacLachlan being assaulted. Think about whether you want to be complicit in violence against women, or play a part in challenging that violence – I suspect it’s the latter.

And if you’re going to keep branding women TERFs, remember: you cannot beat dissent out of women. Trying to do so only recreates patriarchal values, which started the pattern of using violence to render women compliant. It isn’t decent human behaviour, never mind feminist. Women are resilient – we have to be, to make it through life under patriarchy. And we will not fall silent.


 

Bibliography

Marilyn Frye. (1983). The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory.

Audre Lorde. (1983). The Master’s Toois Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.